Frustrated with babysitting on yet another weekend night, a selfish teenager summons Goblins to take her baby half brother. She is then given 13 hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue him from a Goblin King before he is lost forever.
Even though it was met with mixed reviews nearly thirty years later it still manages to charm and retain a cult following. As a boy I remember watching Jim Henson’s feature in a darkened cinema, being scared by the Goblins in Toby’s room and the Firey gang intimidating Sarah.
Under scrutiny, some of the wonderfully painted backdrops, CGI (at the time a pioneering) owl and matted Fireys’ elements have dated but overall the film holds up extremely well. There’s plenty of subtext – for example; Sarah’s mother, Linda, a stage actor and her relationship with an unnamed man portrayed by David Bowie. There’s also ‘Easter eggs’ including toys, figurines, books and games referencing the characters and set ups shown in the film.
Veteran performers Frank Oz and Dave Goelz operate various puppets in the film, along with a number of Henson’s show and film regulars. The talents of the many puppeteers, animatronics, designers and voice work to name a few are outstanding in bringing the characters to life. This coupled with the finely crafted sets, costumes, hair and makeup add up to something quiet special. That’s without mentioning the wonderful score by Trevor Jones, music by Bowie and choreography by (Star Trek Next Generation) Gates McFadden. Based on Dennis Lee and Jim Henson’s story and although a couple of writers had a hand in the screenplay, its credited to Monty Python’s Terry Jones, the finished product is magic.
It’s much more fun than Flight of the Navigator of the same year and better than The Never Ending Story (1984). Henson retains the fantasy atmosphere of The Dark Crystal but makes Labyrinth far more family friendly to great effect, balancing the pace and darker elements successfully.
Legend [edit: late great] David Bowie is perfectly cast as crystal touting, owl shape shifting Jareth, who takes Toby on Sarah’s wish and falls in love with her. Bowie has some great dialogue both humorous and serious. Like The Wizard of Oz adventure it refreshingly has a female lead, Sarah played by Jennifer Connelly, who’s acting and interactions with the puppet characters really sell the magic and believability.
Sarah aided and hindered by an array of memorable characters from a Wiseman, Door Knockers, Helping Hands and The Worm, to the (creepy Dark Crystal-like) Junk Lady and Four Guards to name a few. She’s mainly helped through the labyrinth by fairy exterminator Hoggle, Sir Didymus, Ambrosius (a.k.a Merlin Sarah’s trusty dog) and Ludo a friendly Bigfoot like creature as she goes through the different environments including a maze, bog, forest, Goblin town and Oubliette to mention but a few.
The music numbers are well placed and fitting. Bowie’s ‘Magic Dance’ with the complex puppetry is a joy and technical timing achievement and as a child what was once the boring masquerade ballrooms bit ‘As the World Falls Down’ plays, as adult is hauntingly dreamlike and wonderful executed. The catchy ‘Chilly Down’ song stands out and though not malicious, the Fireys are unintentionally dangerous, the track includes the voice of Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules.
As the film draws to a close its topped off with an edited version of ‘Undergorund’ which also played in the opening as Sarah recites the play, The Labyrinth, possibly hoping to follow in her mothers footsteps. What’s intriguing now is that you can interpret the film in different ways other than the narrative presented – that her coming of age adventure was real. As an alternative the whole adventure maybe just away for here to remember her lines, a dream or something more symbolic.
Overall, some of the elements have dated slightly but as a family piece of entertainment and fun you can’t go wrong will Labyrinth. To the ingenious talent of late Henson’s credit it has yet to be equalled or surpassed.